When Aston Villa and Everton faced off back in August, spirits were still quite high in the claret and blue camp. Despite dropping the first game of the season to West Ham, Villa showed some real promise in that game and the result felt quite unlucky. The mood around the club was still high at the dawn of the Paul Lambert era, and though Everton looked to be a solid team as always, hopes were high ahead of the first game of the season at Villa Park. 90 minutes later it was apparent that there was still a great deal of work to be done, and though the severity of the club's issues might not have been apparent at that time, the ease with which Everton brushed Villa aside was at the very least an early sign of trouble.
In isolation, that game ranked pretty highly on the list of unpleasant games to watch this season. Everton tore Villa apart in ruthless fashion and if not for a few wasted opportunities by the Toffees and a somewhat miraculous strike from Karim El Ahmadi the final scoreline could have been significantly more unpleasant than it turned out. Aston Villa would bounce back to give all of us some false hope in the weeks that followed, but as we all know that didn't last. And in terms of exposing this squad's biggest weaknesses with startling efficiency, the Toffees were the first to the table.
A lot of things have changed since that first meeting, and in Villa's case most of them have been for the worst. In fact, in terms of positive changes Villa can only boast the additions of Christian Benteke and Ashley Westwood, while pretty much every other thing about the club has taken a turn for the worse. For their part, it's become clear that this Everton team is of a higher standard than most would have expected at the beginning of the season. The Toffees have been hanging around the top four all season long, and consistent predictions that they were due to fall off the pace have been repeatedly defied. There's still time for the season to take a turn of course, but with each passing week it becomes harder to make the case that they are anything but the real deal.
That's bad news for Aston Villa, because this team desperately needs points if they're going to avoid the drop, and it's very difficult to make a rational case that they're capable of earning any at Goodison Park. And yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, I still have a sliver of optimism that they can do just that. I'm not kidding myself; it's a long shot that Villa take anything from this game. But if Aston Villa can actually play as well over a full game as they did in the second half against Newcastle, or the first half against West Brom, then they've got a fighting chance of taking not only a point, but all three.
Of course, if this team had shown themselves capable of playing well over the course of 90 minutes on a regular basis, they wouldn't be in serious danger of relegation in the first place. When things are clicking for Villa, they look like the side many of us thought they would be back in September; young and not without their flaws, but solidly mid-table and the foundation for something that could very well end up being quite special. The rest of the time they look like a complete and total disaster, and the good spells aren't nearly enough to make up for it. If I could figure out why the gap between the ups and downs was so wide I'd probably be in a different line of work, but the real concern is that Paul Lambert is seemingly just as baffled as the rest of us.
But there are reasons to think that won't be the case forever and that there's still time for things to turn around. Some of that optimism fades with each passing week, but it wouldn't take much to re-ignite the flame. A complete performance and point or better from Goodison Park would help. At some juncture, Villa will have to take points from games from which they're heavy underdogs, and this would be a pretty fantastic time to start. I'm not especially optimistic, but I remain hopeful. Because really, what else is there to do?